The Living Legacy of an Idle Tale
by Rev. Dwayne Bagley, Greater Southwest District Superintendent
When I was young and full of grace and spirited as a rattlesnake, I was given the opportunity to become a filmmaker. As some of you already know, “opportunity” is probably the wrong word to use in this case. Since I really didn’t have the option to refuse, it was more like being given the assignment to become a filmmaker. It was part of the coursework in my New Testament interpretation class on the Gospel according to Mark. The movie-making assignment was given to every student in the class by our wacky professor who had a wacky name to match. I kid you not, his name was Dr. Boomershine. That name, and his odd way of approaching the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, opened itself up to being subjected to all sorts of abuses. The most frequent of which was that certain wits at the seminary, even among his professorial colleagues, would refer to him as “Dr. Monkeyshines”. Behind his back, of course.
Dr. Boomershine was one of the founders of something called the “Network of Biblical Storytellers”. These learned lay and clergy folks devoted themselves to the notion that the Bible was full of stories that God’s people told one another to help them keep and increase their faith. They thought that it was a crying shame that the stories of the Bible had ever been written down, believing that capturing them on a printed page was the equivalent of putting these life-giving and life-affirming stories in an empty tomb. The Network of Biblical Storytellers sought to rectify this by telling the stories of scripture, right out loud, from memory to anyone who would listen. They elected a president each year to facilitate their annual meetings, but Dr. Boomershine was their king. He had memorized the gospels of Mark, Matthew, John and Luke along with Acts, and certain parts of Paul’s letters. He could begin at chapter one, verse one of the Gospel of Mark and tell the rest of the story, right straight through, from memory. It was rumored that, instead of bedtime stories, he told his children stories from the Gospels – a rumor his long-suffering offspring confirmed when asked with a sighing and shaking of their heads. As a lark, he staged a production of the Book of Revelation in the form of an epic tragedy of the Greek Theatre.
These things alone would have branded Dr. Boomershine with a reputation for a certain kind of wackiness, but he took his storytelling approach to the gospel one giant leap further when he insisted that there would come a day when people wouldn’t sit still long enough to read books or even listen to well-crafted and executed sermonizing. Instead, according to his reckoning at least, the good news of Jesus Christ should be translated into a visual form that would appeal to people’s senses, capture their imagination, and connect with them in a way that communicated to a generation raised on television. He was working with the American Bible Society to do a translation of the New Testament in a video format suitable for playing on VCR. He actually thought there would come a time when some people’s primary connection with Christian faith would be through a screen. How wacky is that? You can see why people called him Dr. Monkeyshines.
I approached his assignment to translate a passage from the Gospel of Mark into a video presentation with all the gusto of someone who needs the course credits to graduate. Because I possessed hubris beyond my years, I chose Mark’s story of the resurrection from chapter 16 – the resurrection story – as the subject for my no-budget visual retelling. Because I was short of two resources most necessary to produce a visual epic, money and time, I had to make some compromises. As a stand in for the empty tomb, I chose a large, neo-gothic style, downtown church located in the city of the Wolverines that shall not be named. Its impressively thick oak doors seemed representative of barriers barring entrance that would need to be rolled away. And let’s face it, if you’re looking for something empty and tomblike, there’s nothing emptier and more devoid of life than a church sanctuary on a weekday.
In the role of the women who went very early on the first day of the week after the sun had risen to pay their respects to Jesus, I cast three college co-eds. Instead of bringing spices to the neo-gothic tomb, I had them tote daffodils. I encountered a continuity problem when my rigorous filming schedule conflicted with one of my three women’s final exams, and she had to leave. I had another difficulty when I was trying to find the right person to play the angelic messenger in Mark’s story. Because I couldn’t convince or coerce anyone else, I had to play the part of the bright angel myself. Needless to say, it was not typecasting.
There wasn’t anything particularly innovative or insightful about any of this. It was all just sort of a heavy-handed attempt at updating the old, old story. But my no-budget epic did step out of the tomb we try to keep the good news of the resurrection in when it imagined where Jesus might call his disciples to join him if the Easter story happened today. I couldn’t recreate the Galilee where Jesus called his followers to join him. Instead, I imagined places where Jesus might be found living and working in our world. I chose scenes of midnight basketball leagues and homes for the elderly and soup kitchens and clothing banks and shelters for people on the street. I thought then that if Jesus were going to rise up, go on ahead of us and ask us to join him, those were the kinds of places where we would find him. I still believe that.
One Easter Sunday when I was just a baby pastor, a woman came up to me after I had given an impassioned Easter sermon that had left me breathless, tearful and sweaty. I had left my body, soul, mind and spirit up on the altar of God after letting that one fly. She surprised me by asking, in a voice that sounded like she should have her hands on her hips, “You don’t really believe all that, do you?” I have spent the last twenty years wondering how I could have responded to her better. I’ve concluded that I should have just told her that faith in resurrection of Jesus Christ is less about believing and more about doing.
We live in a world that is asking the same question that my nemesis posed to me all those ago, “You really don’t believe all that, do you?” For them the resurrection madness we proclaim seems to be just another idle tale. What they require is for the Gospel of Jesus Christ to be translated into a form that they can understand, not in some no budget video presentation or even a television epic with a multi-million dollar budget. Instead, we should be about the work of meeting Jesus in the places where he has gone on ahead of us and translate the Good News into actions that help by offering hope and into deeds that declare the truth of the Easter story through the good we do.
As people of faith we believe, along with the Apostle Paul, that God’s grace, revealed to us in powerful signs in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, hasn’t been for nothing. As people who believe that truth, we’re left with a challenge. After we’re done with the singing of our alleluias, when the Easter lilies have left the building, and the choir has hung up their robes, we’re left with the challenge of crafting a living legacy out of what, to many, seems to be an idle tale.
We witness to this living legacy not only when we raise our alleluia, not just when we arrive at the end of life holding on to the assurance that we are heaven bound, but when we join Jesus in whatever Galilee presents itself in the world today. We give testimony to the fact that God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ are not for nothing, not only when we say that we believe, but when we live like we believe. The testimony Easter people have to proclaim is simply and powerfully this: “I serve a risen savior. He’s in the world today. I know that he is living whatever foes may. We are his hands of mercy. We speak with his voice of care. And just the time I need him he is always there. He lives! He lives! Christ Jesus lives today. He walks with me when I walk with him. He talks to me when I speak for him. Wherever life’s narrow way takes us, we discover that he lives! He lives- Salvation to impart. You ask me how I know he lives, and I will tell you that the world will know he lives when they see He lives within our hearts.”
Happy Easter. May God grant you grace to live like you believe in the power of the Resurrection.